Defense optional? Cerrone vs. Gaethje a battle of high-paced strikers

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Gaethje: Cerrone gave me a concussion in 2012 (1:54)

Ahead of their main event fight, Justin Gaethje tells the story of how Donald Cerrone gave him a concussion during training back in 2012. (1:54)

The lightweight division will be in the spotlight once again this weekend. In Saturday's main event in Vancouver, British Columbia, lightweight contenders Donald Cerrone and Justin Gaethje will face off in one of the most highly anticipated fights of the year.

Gaethje brings some of the most absurd striking stats in MMA history into the fight. Cerrone holds his own share of UFC records and has always been an offensive dynamo. Many expect this fight to be a memorable one, and the numbers certainly point in that direction.

The following analyzes those numbers and points to multiple paths to victory for each fighter.


Striking differential

Nobody with at least five UFC fights has averaged as many significant strikes per minute as Gaethje. Through his first five bouts in the Octagon, he has landed 8.50 significant strikes per minute, which is not only the best rate among ranked lightweights, but also the best rate in UFC history.

In some cases, he has been able to overwhelm his opponents with striking volume. However, he achieves this historic striking rate by ignoring defense altogether. In the UFC, he has absorbed a staggering 10.23 significant strikes per minute. This leaves him with a negative striking differential of -1.73. The measure, which is calculated by subtracting significant strikes absorbed per minute from significant strikes landed per minute, currently ranks dead last among ranked lightweights.

Cerrone lands nowhere near the volume of Gaethje, but his striking differential is also near zero, which highlights his willingness to absorb punishment as long as he is able to land his own shots. For his combined UFC and WEC career, he has landed 4.35 significant strikes per minute, while absorbing 4.18 per minute for a striking differential of +0.17.

Cerrone's willingness to engage has only increased as he has advanced in his career. He has been outlanded by his opponent in six of his past 10 fights, and he has absorbed 5.18 significant strikes per minute during the same stretch. Despite his reputation as a reckless fighter, his defense was actually much more stout prior to this period. Before beginning this recent 10-fight period, he had been absorbing only 3.80 significant strikes per minute.

If Cerrone chooses to employ this type of lax defensive strategy against Gaethje, he could get into a lot of trouble. Gaethje's volume will be certainly too much for Cowboy to overcome. During his UFC career, Gaethje has attempted 15.55 significant strikes per minute, which is significantly higher than Cerrone's 9.29 attempts rate. If both fighters meet in the middle and exchange strikes, Gaethje will almost certainly be the one landing at the higher rate unless Cerrone changes his tactics.

Striking power

Even if Cerrone ends up being badly outlanded by Gaethje, he could still make an impact with his striking. While his defense has trailed off in his past 10 fights, his power appears to have spiked. For his UFC/WEC career, Cerrone has landed 25 knockdowns, which equates to a 0.90 knockdowns per 15 minutes of fight time. His 20 knockdowns landed in the UFC are the most in the promotion's history. However, eight of those 25 knockdowns have come in his past 10 fights. During that span, he has averaged 1.05 per 15 minutes, which is a 29% increase of his knockdown rate in his previous 32 fights.

With only five UFC fights, the sample size is too small to measure Gaethje's striking power in terms of knockdowns. However, he has pulled off back-to-back stoppages and scored knockdowns in both fights. Even without a large enough sample to measure his knockdown rate, it would be ridiculous to say that he lacks the ability to finish a fight with strikes. During his 10-fight World Series of Fighting career, Gaethje scored stoppages due to strikes in nine of those fights, and averaged 1.57 stoppages per 15 minutes of fight time.

If Gaethje begins to have success with his volume striking approach, Cerrone could hope that his power will bail him out.

Leg striking

Both Gaethje and Cerrone land a majority of their significant strikes to the head. However, Gaethje is much more focused on landing to a secondary target. In the UFC, 35% of his landed significant strikes have come against his opponents' legs. That may not seem like a lot, but due to his high overall volume, that proportion equates to 3.01 significant leg strikes per minute. That means Gaethje actually lands more significant leg strikes on a per-minute basis than two ranked lightweights, Islam Makhachev (2.10) and Anthony Pettis (2.97), land in terms of total significant strikes per minute. Not only is he a prodigious leg striker, but he also does not absorb many shots to the legs. In his five UFC fights, he has eaten only 27 significant leg strikes.

Cerrone has done his fair share of striking to the legs over the course of his extensive UFC/WEC career. However, he is much more diverse with his choice of secondary target. He lands 25% of his significant strikes to the legs, with another 24% landing to the body. While he has not been particularly vulnerable to leg kicks, he has struggled with them recently. In his past two defeats, coming against Tony Ferguson and Leon Edwards, he absorbed 1.20 significant leg strikes per minute.

Both Gaethje and Cerrone have had over 80% of their significant strikes come at distance, which means the bout will likely play out as a standing striking battle. If it does, Gaethje could give himself an advantage by employing his volume leg striking approach.

Takedowns

Even though both fighters do an overwhelming majority of their striking on the feet, Cerrone has shown occasional interest in going for takedowns. In the UFC and WEC, he has landed 1.22 takedowns per 15 minutes on 3.37 attempts. Even though he has landed only 152 significant ground strikes in 42 fights, he has been able to make an impact with his grappling. Cerrone averages 1.24 passes per takedown, and he has won 12 fights via submission.

Gaethje is the one in this fight who comes from a wrestling background. He was an All-American at the University of Northern Colorado, but he has been much less focused on wrestling since making the transition into MMA. In fact, he has attempted only one takedown in his UFC career. Defensively he has made solid use of his wrestling as he has stopped 80% of the takedown attempts against him. However, he was taken down in both of his first two fights against Michael Johnson and Eddie Alvarez.

All signs point toward an action-packed standing fight, but Cerrone has been known to opportunistically look for takedowns when he feels he has an advantage. Gaethje has shown solid, but not spectacular takedown defense in the UFC. If Cerrone is able to surprise him with a few quick shots, it could end up having an influence on the judges if the bout reaches the final bell.